A West Baltimore community garden - suffering from years of neglect after contractors used it to dump building materials - turned into a political stump yesterday as some of the city's top officials vowed aggressive prosecution of illegal dumping and announced a renewed focus on preserving gardens to help quell crime and revitalize neighborhoods.
Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Councilman and mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and City Council hopeful Adam S. Meister, who is campaigning to replace Mitchell in the 11th District, gathered in Upton to mark a rebirth of the decrepit garden near the 1200 block of Shields Place.
Volunteers attacked weeds and bramble with shovels and rakes at the community garden that had provided over the last decade some 5,000 pounds of vegetables to the homeless. A $3,000 grant for plants and supplies from Home Depot is bolstering the garden's renewal.
"We're going to have a cleaner, greener, healthier city," Dixon said, adding that her office is investigating to find who dumped old doors, floors and insulation in the garden.
"I had hoped to have news on that for you today, but we're going through a legal process to find out who did the dumping, and we will make an example out of them."
Dixon said she wants to use the Upton garden - one of the Gardens of Hope funded by a partnership between the Upton Planning Committee and the National Italian American Foundation - as a spot to launch an awareness campaign about the city's Adopt-a-Lot program. It allows community groups and individuals to apply to rehabilitate vacant lots and turn them into park-like spaces.
The program, dating to the 1970s, has foundered under severe understaffing.
For years, master gardener Gloria H. Luster tended, on her own, the weedy stretch between vacant rowhouses in Upton. She adopted the vacant lots and turned them into gardens in 1992.
She called the lots her "Garden of Eden," though she knew they served as a den for drug users and dealers at night.
She put up fences around meticulously tilled rows of cabbage and okra, but careless cars and trucks knocked them down. She worked the dirt with her hands, but someone filled the space with tires. She planted a hedge of junipers, only to find them uprooted.
"I was determined it was going to happen, even as people who were supposed to help didn't show up. And you wonder: What does it take to make these people care?" said Luster, 82.
A small group of volunteers she assembled over the years wrestled with the same kinds of setbacks.
They cultivated vegetable gardens every spring that yielded produce - carrots, onions, cabbage, string beans - for local homeless shelters and church soup kitchens, but the garden faced a perennial assault by people dumping building materials.
The persistence of a handful of people notwithstanding, the garden seemed ill-fated - until now.
"Every year, we were starting from ground zero. We would plant something, and ... every year it would be destroyed," said Teresa M. Stephens, a master gardener who manages the site and lives in the neighborhood.
"But this is amazing. The mayor sent cleanup trucks right away to haul off the trash," Stephens said. "We have more volunteers now than we've ever had."